Coursing through the Usk Valley, the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal – or the Mon and Brec, as it’s affectionately known – is an extraordinary example of contour canal engineering, clinging to the mountainside for much of its navigation. It was one of the many arteries that kept the Industrial Revolution in full vigour in the early 19th century, transporting coal, limestone and iron ore between Brecon and Newport.
You can still see remnants of its industrial past – from lime kilns to narrow-gauge tramways – along what is now a leafy, tranquil waterway, with red kites soaring overhead and kingfishers dazzling onlookers with their telltale blue flashes.
This there-and-back route starts and ends in Llangynidr, where the mountain-fresh Usk tumbles beneath an 18th-century stone bridge. In this pretty canal-side village you’ll find narrowboats for hire, public toilets and a welcoming real ale pub, The Red Lion.
The towpath along the canal can be muddy and stony, so it’s best to opt for a mountain or hybrid bike, rather than a road bike. Sturdy footwear is a must if you’re travelling on foot.
Llangynidr to Pencelli bike ride
13.9 miles/22.4km | 3 hours | easy-moderate (return)
1. Llangynidr locks
Start your ride on the towpath along the chain of five locks at Llangynidr. These – and one lock in Brecon – are the only locks you’ll find on the Mon and Brec, for it was a canal built to follow the mountainous contours of the landscape rather than ascend or descend it, as you’ll find with other canals on the network. This is a particularly beautiful stretch, where you can gaze up at sheep grazing on the wooded hillside, with the sweeping Usk Valley below. You’ll also pass under a series of original stone bridges; some of them are quite low, so be prepared to dismount.
The canal soon approaches Ashford Tunnel, which was historically too narrow for horses to tow barges through so the boats had to be ‘legged’. This involved boaters lying on top of the vessel and propelling it forwards by walking their feet along the roof of the tunnel. Who needs an engine, eh? Here the path diverts up and over the tunnel then rejoins the canal at the other end.
2. Lime kilns
Just before you come to Talybont-on-Usk you’ll find a bench next to a display tram. Across the canal you’ll be able to see an impressive bank of lime kilns. These fires were kept roaring for much of the 19th century, fed with limestone mined from the Tredegar quarries and carried on the Brinore Tramroad before being unloaded on to the canal.
Either stop here to rest with a flask of tea or carry on into the village, where you’ll find a trio of excellent pubs, all serving food and real ales. There’s also a café and village shop to stock up on local treats, and be sure not to miss the electric-powered lift bridge in operation – always a nerve-wracking experience for novice boaters forced to halt the road traffic.
3. Pubs and paddles
Onwards to Pencelli, a small village that boasts another fine pub, the Royal Oak, complete with flagstone floors, Sunday roasts and a canal-side beer garden. There’s also a popular campsite across the water, within the grounds of a ruined 11th-century castle.
You’ll pass another lift bridge, used by the neighbouring farm to access a field of sheep, and you might also spot a few moored narrowboats. Pause to admire their quirky names and gaily painted roses and castles. If little legs are getting tuckered out by this point, hop off your bikes, as you’re about to cross the Nant Menasgin river where you can enjoy a paddle beneath the aqueduct.
4. Mountain views
After Cambrian Cruisers marina, you’ll reach a bench just before bridge no.160. This is the turning point of this route, but if you’re feeling energetic, why not power on to the historic market town of Brecon, just another four miles along the towpath? Otherwise, give yourself plenty of time to drink in views of the Brecon Beacons’ loftiest peaks before cycling back to Llangynidr.